The pianist James P. Johnson was born in 1894. He played his first gig when he was 8 years old at a bordello in his Jersey City neighborhood. The patroness sat him down at the keyboard and told him to keep his eyes to himself. She paid him 25 cents.
So begins the tale the jazz faithful tell about the birth of jazz piano playing: That it began with Johnson’s reinterpretation of the rollicking two-handed style of his elders, which became known as Harlem stride, the earliest form of jazz piano.
You don’t hear Johnson’s music much anymore, but there is a group of stride pianists in New York who gather regularly to play in the style of that era. One of them is Spike Wilner, who is also one of the owners of Small’s, the basement jazz club on West 10th Street in Greenwich Village. He is an intense guy with dark curly hair who traces his ancestry back to a prominent 19th-century European rabbinical dynasty.
In February, Mr. Wilner and his fellow stride enthusiasts discovered that Mr. Johnson lay in an unmarked grave in a Queens cemetery.
“We were all pretty appalled,” Mr. Wilner said. “For him to be in an unmarked pauper’s grave somewhere in Queens is just beyond reprehensible.”
AS A YOUNG pianist, Johnson idolized ragtime piano “ticklers” who played for tips in such establishments and did some pimping on the side.
“They were popular fellows, real celebrities,” he recalled in an interview two years before his death, in 1955. “They had lots of girlfriends, led a sporting life and were invited everywhere there was a piano. I thought it was a fine way to live, just as later kids would think singers like Crosby or Sinatra were worth copying.”
He also artfully varied his melodies and his rhythms. He was an improviser. The ticklers didn’t do that.
He quickly became an uptown sensation. He made classic records in the ’20s for labels like Okeh and Black Swan. He roamed the city with younger disciples like Duke Ellington and Fats Waller. They, too, were welcome anywhere there was a piano and frequently performed at Harlem’s legendary “rent parties,” where residents invited guests to their homes and charged admission so they could keep the wolf from the door.
Johnson, who cradled a cigar in the corner of his mouth while he played, influenced everybody who played his instrument until the advent of bebop in the 1940s. Then pianists started competing directly with horn players, and their art became a right-handed game. Even then, Thelonius Monk tossed some of the old master’s ferocious two-handed licks into his abstract solos.
Johnson also influenced classical white composers like George Gershwin and Darius Milhaud. But when he wrote his own perfectly respectable orchestral music, it was almost as if he didn’t exist.
“He didn’t get a fair shake because of institutional racism,” lamented Ethan Iverson, the pianist in The Bad Plus, a jazz trio known for treatment of Nirvana and Heart songs. He, too, is a rabid Johnson fan.
Some think the Harlem pianist he was the inspiration for Ralph Ellison’s novel, Invisible Man. If so,these are outrageous epitaphs for a genius.
After getting the approval of the late pianist’s heirs, Mr. Wilner set out to give Johnson’s ghost some peace. So he has planned an event at his club entitled “James P. Johnson’s Last Rent Party” for Oct. 4 to raise money to buy a headstone for the father of jazz piano. It will feature performances by 10 pianists ranging from Dick Hyman, the distinguished early jazz expert whose lovely solos are heard in classic Woody Allen films like Stardust Memories and Hannah and Her Sisters, to Mr. Iverson, the enfant terrible of the young jazz piano set.